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Mary Lamb

Mary Lamb Mary Lamb[1†]

Mary Anne Lamb (1764–1847), an English writer, is famed for co-authoring "Tales from Shakespeare" with her brother Charles. Despite grappling with mental illness, she made notable literary contributions. Alongside her brother, she influenced a literary circle in London, counting Wordsworth and Coleridge among its members. Her life, marked by personal strife and literary success, exemplifies resilience and dedication to the arts[1†][2†].

Early Years and Education

Mary Lamb was born in London on December 3, 1764, the third of seven children of John and Elizabeth Lamb[1†]. Her parents worked for Samuel Salt, a barrister in London, and the family lived above Salt in his home at 2 Crown Office Row in the Inner Temple[1†]. Only two of Mary’s siblings survived: her older brother John Jr. and her younger brother Charles[1†].

From an early age, Mary Lamb received little formal education[1†][3†]. However, she learned about literature and writers from her father’s stories of the times he had seen Samuel Johnson, who lived nearby, and his visitors[1†]. Mary remembered seeing, at the age of five, the writer Oliver Goldsmith in the street, and she also witnessed David Garrick's acting[1†]. Her father may have taken her with him on his trips to the Pope’s Head book shop nearby[1†].

In the early 1790s, Elizabeth Lamb began to experience debilitating pain, possibly from arthritis, which ended up crippling her[1†]. Mary, the only other person at home during the day, took responsibility for her mother’s care[1†]. By 1796, Elizabeth was completely helpless and dependent on Mary[1†]. During this time, Mary worked as a seamstress, along with a little girl who served as her apprentice[1†].

Career Development and Achievements

Mary Lamb’s career is marked by her significant contributions to literature, despite the personal challenges she faced[1†][2†]. She worked as a seamstress for 10 years to support her ailing family[1†][2†]. During this time, she also took on the responsibility of caring for her mother, who was suffering from a debilitating illness[1†].

In the midst of these challenges, Mary Lamb found solace in writing. Her most notable work is the collaboration with her brother Charles on the collection “Tales from Shakespeare” in 1807[1†][2†]. This work, aimed at children, retells twenty of Shakespeare’s plays in a way that is accessible and engaging for young readers[1†]. During the writing of the Tales, Mary realised that she could make a living writing these types of works for children[1†].

In addition to “Tales from Shakespeare”, Mary Lamb and her brother Charles also collaborated on other collections of poetry and prose for children, including “Mrs. Leicester’s School” (1809), and “Poetry for Children” (1809)[1†][2†]. These books were published anonymously or under Charles’s name in order to shield Mary from unwanted publicity[1†][2†].

Despite her illness, the siblings developed a collaborative writing relationship and produced many well-known collections of poetry and prose for children[1†][2†]. Their works have had a lasting impact on children’s literature and continue to be celebrated for their creativity and accessibility[1†][2†].

First Publication of Her Main Works

Mary Lamb, along with her brother Charles, made significant contributions to English literature. Their most notable work is the collection “Tales from Shakespeare” (1807)[1†][4†]. This work is a series of summaries of the plots from 20 Shakespearean plays[1†][4†]. It was intended to make Shakespeare’s works more accessible to children, and it remains a popular introduction to Shakespeare’s works[1†][4†].

In addition to “Tales from Shakespeare”, the Lambs collaborated on several other books. These include “Poetry for Children”, “Mrs. Leicester’s School”, and "Beauty and the Beast"[1†][4†]. Each of these works showcases the Lambs’ talent for adapting complex works of literature for younger audiences[1†][4†].

Here are some of the main works by Mary Lamb:

Each of these works has played a significant role in English literature, particularly in making complex literary works accessible to children[1†][4†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Mary Lamb’s work, particularly her collaboration with her brother Charles on “Tales from Shakespeare”, has had a significant impact on English literature[5†][6†]. Their aim to make Shakespeare’s works more accessible to children has been largely successful, and their adaptations continue to be a popular introduction to Shakespeare’s works[5†][6†].

Mary Lamb’s own poetry also offers insight into her unique perspective. Her poem ‘Envy’, for example, showcases a core belief that the existence of envy is not only an unnecessary quality to possess, but it is actually nonsensical[5†][6†]. Another poem, ‘Summer Friends’, speaks to the invulnerable relationship between friends in good times and bad[5†][6†].

Despite her significant literary contributions, Mary Lamb’s life was marked by personal tragedy. She suffered from mental illness and spent most of her life confined to a mental facility[5†][6†]. Yet, her work continues to be celebrated for its literary merit and its contribution to making complex literary works accessible to younger audiences[5†][6†].

In recent years, there has been a reevaluation of the Lambs’ critical heritage[5†][7†]. Mary Lamb has been the subject of rediscovery alongside other women writers, while Charles Lamb has been recontextualized as a politicized and metropolitan periodical writer[5†][7†]. This reevaluation underscores the enduring impact of the Lambs’ work on English literature[5†][7†].

Personal Life

Mary Lamb’s personal life was marked by significant challenges and responsibilities. She worked as a seamstress for 10 years to support her ailing family[2†]. Mary suffered from bipolar disorder[2†], and during an episode in 1796, she tragically took the life of her mother[2†][1†][2†]. This event led to her being confined to mental facilities for most of her remaining life[2†][1†].

Her younger brother Charles, a poet and essayist who worked for the East India Company, agreed to serve as Mary’s caretaker rather than consign her to lifelong institutionalization[2†]. They lived together for nearly 40 years, save for Mary’s annual manic episodes, during which she was institutionalized[2†]. Despite her illness, the siblings developed a collaborative writing relationship[2†].

In 1823, they adopted an orphan, Emma Isola, who lived with them for a decade until marrying their publisher[2†]. After Charles’s death in 1834, Mary was cared for by family members and a nurse, and at times placed in asylums, until her death in 1847[2†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Mary Lamb’s legacy is intertwined with her brother Charles, as they collaborated on several significant literary works[1†]. Despite the personal challenges she faced, Mary’s contributions to literature, particularly her retelling of Shakespeare’s comedies in “Tales from Shakespeare”, have left a lasting impact[1†][8†].

Her life and work have resonated through criticism and have shaped the understanding of Romanticism[1†][7†]. Mary Lamb and her brother Charles presided over a literary circle in London that included the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, among others[1†]. Their interactions with contemporaries and their influence over Romanticism have been the subject of critical attention in the late 20th and early 21st centuries[1†][7†].

Despite the tragic circumstances of her life, Mary Lamb’s story is one of resilience and creativity. Her legacy serves as a reminder of the power of literature to provide solace and companionship in the face of adversity[1†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Mary Lamb [website] - link
  2. Poetry Foundation - Mary Lamb [website] - link
  3. Britannica - Mary Ann Lamb: British author [website] - link
  4. Google Books - The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb - - Charles Lamb [website] - link
  5. LitCharts - Lamb to the Slaughter Summary & Analysis [website] - link
  6. Poem Analysis - Mary Lamb Poetry [website] - link
  7. Oxford Bibliographies - Charles and Mary Lamb - British and Irish Literature [website] - link
  8. Wikipedia (English) - Tales from Shakespeare [website] - link
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